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Performance Anxiety for Athletes - How to Overcome Your Anxiety

Sep 5, 2008
There is a common perception among many athletes, coaches, and even some sport psychologists that anxiety is a "bad" state, and should be reduced at all costs. Sport psychologists would traditionally most likely begin with teaching an anxious athlete relaxation and deep breathing skills. In my practice, I have found another approach also to be beneficial. Research has found that it is usually the person's perception of their high arousal that may influence performance, not the high arousal itself. If the athlete believes they are anxious, and believe that this anxiety may affect their performance, usually the anxiety increases. Their anxiety can then become out of control, reducing their performance, and completing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Taking these findings on board, often when an athlete approaches me before a major competition flustered about his or her anxiety, I reply "Great!" After a brief look of confusion, I explain to the athlete that their body is getting ready to compete. The body is pumping blood to their muscles ready for explosive exercise. I may also have a brief chat about evolution, and how the body's flight or fight system is activated during potentially threatening situations.

This response increases heart rate and blood flow to the specific muscles involved in speed, strength, and power that was designed to help us either run away or defend ourselves from potential predators. I liken the body's response to the state they try and achieve in warm-up, with an increase in heart rate, and maybe a light sweat. Then we may have a discussion about the opposite state of total relaxation and boredom, and how this state would not be ideal for competition (of course this approach would not be relevant for sports requiring fine motor control and slow heart rate, such as shooting or archery). Athletes may also find it helpful if their anxiety is reframed as anticipation, passion, and excitement for the upcoming competition.

Although relaxation interventions can be valuable tools for performance enhancement, mental skills probably will be ineffective if the anxiety is out of control, or the source of the athlete's anxiety stems from deeper issues. These deeper concerns may include anxiety about performing in front of a significant other person (e.g., wanting to make Mum or Dad proud), or fear of not living up to a protected image of him or herself (e.g., having to perform well to live up to the image of the perfect athlete).

Relaxation skills can only go so far in helping these athletes, and a more effective approach may be referring these athletes to a sport psychologist with counseling experience. The referral process itself may be a delicate process given the stigma associated with seeing a "shrink" and admitting a perceived "weakness."
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